STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
A HARD NIGHT
Why did Rachel weep? She didn't know why herself, and she didn't even
feel she was weeping. For a long time, her heart had been heavy, very heavy,
and suddenly it was soaked through, it overflowed, it poured out its tears.
Rachel, as we've already said, felt that she was lonesome, that she was
lacking something, that something was missing, but what it was she didn't
know and couldn't know. Rachel knew perfectly well that her parents had
married her off, gotten her off their backs. The term "off their backs"
is enough to show how separated people get: children from parents and parents
from children. The term "off their backs" can often be heard among us Jews,
in almost every family. The term "off their backs" is a terrible shame,
an insult to our entire nation, which boasts of being so compassionate....
Most of all, Rachel was annoyed my Moyshe-Mendel, by his behavior and his
actions towards her. Rachel understood what part she played for her gem
of a husband with her beauty and kindness, with her virtue and loyalty.
Rachel saw what she meant to him....
And lately, Rachel had been especially upset, confused, bewildered.
What she had endured with Stempeniu was no trifle. Rachel, pious Rachel,
who had never swerved from her Jewish way of life by even a gnat's eyelash,
who had never transgressed even the most insignificant rule of all the
laws for Jewish women, Rachel, a Jewish wife immersed in the Yiddish Bible
- thinking about another man, receiving a letter from him, meeting with
him - and she didn't resist. On the contrary, she felt so drawn to him,
not with a bad thought, God forbid, but just like that, to see him and
hear him play the violin.
Oh, his music, his music! Rachel would have been willing to give up
food and sleep forever so long as she could hear Stempeniu, hear him and...
see him! His eyes, when they gazed, they warmed, they caressed, they pampered....
Oh, his eyes!
Rachel grabbed her head with both hands and listened to her temples
beating, her heart beating, and her soul yearned, yearned. She didn't know
what was happening to her. She pulled the quilt up over her head and saw
her old friend Haia-Etel, may she rest in peace. Rachel remembered that
story of Haia-Etel and Benjamin, and a frost ran through her body. She
pushed the quilt away and suddenly she heard a very familiar melody, a
familiar sound of a familiar violin. Rachel thought she was imagining it,
but the music came nearer and nearer, it was the kind of music they play
to escort the in-laws home after a wedding. Rachel had already heard and
recognized what was being played, she also realized that it was Stempeniu
playing away on the violin, and she had no doubts that it was Stempeniu
accompanying the in-laws home after the wedding dinner. But what was he
doing here? There was no wedding on this street tonight and there were
no in-laws here! What could it mean? But the drum and the cymbal came nearer
and nearer. The whole band was playing with a vengeance, but more clearly
than anything else she could hear Stempeniu's violin, for its sweet melody,
its tender song were subduing all the other instruments.
Rachel couldn't lie still. She leaped out of bed, strode over to the
window, opened it, and leaned way, way out.
Rachel hadn't seen such a night for a long time. The moon was strolling
in the middle of the sky and it was surrounded by millions of stars - diamonds
twinkling and glistening. The air was warm, soft, and fresh. No breeze
whatsoever, so that the high poplars looming in the big Monastery Garden
stood tall and erect like sentries on guard. No leaf stirred. But seldom,
very seldom, a lovely scent of fragrant herbs came wafting from there,
and it was very welcome in Mazepevke, which had a different smell during
the day ....
And this wonderful night was so fitting for our lovely Rachel, pure,
virtuous, beautiful Rachel with her long, white throat, and the rich blond
hair lying scattered upon it. (Ah, could Rachel have thought at such a
time that the moon and the author of this novel could see her own hair,
without the marriage wig?) Her eyes were no less blue or pure than the
pure, blue heavens, and her lovely, radiant face was no less beautiful
than the lovely, radiant night. But Rachel's thoughts were elsewhere: Her
mind was where the strange music could be heard and her heart was where
Stempeniu's violin was.
The musicians were playing so sadly, as though they had only just buried
someone, put him in the ground. For us, a joyous occasion comes out as
weeping, and fun and pleasure make us shed tears.... Even gloomier was
the music at midnight, when all the world was sound asleep and only a tiny
group of Jews were celebrating with a dismal tune as they came home from
the wedding dinner with lowered heads: What was it? Had parents gotten
a child off their backs - please excuse me - taken care of a child, for
goodness' sake - well, all right.... In this quiet, lovely summer night,
you could hear Stempeniu's violin more clearly than ever, it grieved the
heart, it drew the soul, it sapped your life's blood - and Rachel stood
half-naked at the window, listening. She wanted to flee from there, close
the window and flee, but she was shackled to the spot as if in irons, as
if held by a magnet. She gazed and she listened so earnestly as though
she weren't hearing his violin, as though she could hear him talking to
her, pleading, begging, weeping.... And not only Rachel was listening to
those beautiful melodies from Stempeniu's violin in the radiant summer
night: The moon and the stars, the soft, fresh air, all nature and all
her creatures awoke from their slumber and got up for a moment to find
out what the strange singing was at midnight, what those sounds were at
The nocturnal chorister, the tardy nightingale in Monastery Garden,
upon hearing that music, rolled up his sleeves and tried to show off his
prowess as he likes to do; but now, in late summer, he couldn't sing more
beautifully than Stempeniu's violin, for the poor bird had lost his voice
at the end of spring, and all that remained was a screech, the kind that
rises from a cantor's throat after the Days of Awe - if you'll forgive
the blasphemous comparison.... The rooster, that screamer, heard the playing
of the musicians and, thinking it was already dawn, stepped down from his
perch, flapped his wings, mumbled his morning prayers, let out his usual
cockadoodledoo with a cantorial cantillation, and then went back to his
rest, furious that he had been bothered for nothing.... Even the dogs,
the hounds, far away, on Monastery Street, at first began barking and howling,
as is their custom, upon hearing the Jewish musicians in the middle of
the night, and then they fell silent and looked for places to sleep. Even
the cow, Dvosse-Malke's chestnut cow, stopped chewing her cud near the
house, perked up her ears, and let out a deep moan from her belly, like
a sinful Jew. And the neighbor's two goats got so excited that they sprang
up from the ground and changed places, menacing each other with their horns.
In short, all things and creatures came alive, showing that they could
hear the music in that warm, silent, radiant, magical summer night.
At the same time, our virtuous Rachel was standing at the window as
though shackled in irons. She stood there, riveted, wonder-struck, in utter
confusion. "Oh, what a night! Oh God, what a night this is!" She stood
there, absorbing it with all her senses. She swallowed mouthfuls of the
fresh air. She was totally spellbound. She gazed at the blue sky and remembered
those summer nights when she was a girl, sitting in front of the house,
gazing up at the white moonbeams while playing jacks and singing that old
The moon is shining through the night,
She had sung the song in those bygone days, never understanding it, and
now she did understand it, not fully, but she understood something and
felt it. She felt that something was tugging at her, pulling her outside,
into the open air. She felt hemmed in here, hot and ill, ill!... Rachel
remembered another song that she used to sing as a girl, during summers,
outside by the door.
And Pearl is sitting by the door,
Sighing and moaning through the night,
Alas, her heart is so sore!
Sighing and moaning through the night,
Alas, her heart is so sore!
I stand on the shore
"From afar?" But he was so close now! He was right there, Stempeniu, with
his violin, his long hair, his black, burning, fiery eyes, which were always
staring at her and warming her with their glow, with their fire. And at
that moment, she yearned to be near him forever, to be near him and listen
to him playing forever, and see his beautiful eyes forever.... But there
was one thing Rachel didn't understand: How had he come here, Stempeniu,
at midnight, with his violin?
And I can't come to you,
Oh you call me from afar -
But I can't swim to you.
Oh, you call me from afar,
But I can't swim to you!
How had Stempeniu come here with the in-laws? She simply couldn't understand,
no matter how hard she thought about it. Rachel remembered that there had
been a wedding somewhere near the synagogue. How had the in-laws gotten
here? She understood the mystery only when she saw them very close by,
almost at her house, the musicians and the in-laws. She solved the riddle
only when she saw Stempeniu halting right at her house, right next to her
window, and starting to play more freshly, more ardently. Now Rachel understood
what Stempeniu had done: He had taken along the whole crew, all the in-laws,
all the guests, from a dozen streets away, past her window, and for whom?
At first, it was very pleasurable for her, and her heart was so joyful
that it almost sprang from her breast. And willy-nilly, Rachel burst into
such merry laughter that she was frightened by her own voice, she looked
at herself standing there half-naked, her throat bare, without her marriage
wig - and she hastily jumped away from the window, slammed it shut, and
threw herself into the bed.
"Oh God, oh God!" thought Rachel. "The things you can do if you don't
notice where you are! Standing naked in the middle of the night, at the
window, in front of a crowd of men, thinking about such vain, silly things,
having such ugly thoughts about someone like Stempeniu.... And Stempeniu
- leading a whole congregation of Jews along a dozen streets - for what,
for whom? It takes a lot of nerve to do a thing like that!... Where does
he get such nerve?... I have to ask him. He has to stop doing that! He's
making me miserable!... I have to have it out with him once and for all.
What's that old saying: 'It's better to let off steam right away!'... He
tells me a fairy-tale: Lovey-dovey! 'Very respectable I swear, Saturday
night,' he says, 'on Monastery Street,' that's where he'll make his intentions
clear.... I wish it were Saturday night already so I could hear what it's
all about. Of course I'll go, why should I be scared? Scared of whom? Jews
should only be scared of God!... It's a disaster, it's an evil spell....
There are good reasons why people tell all those stories.... But what does
he want from me, what does he want? And who's to blame if not me? You mustn't
give someone else even your little finger.... If Moyshe-Mendel were here
now, I'd tell him everything. But where is he? Does he ever listen to me?
What does he care if I'm miserable, if I'm in agony?... Oh, I ought to
pray. It's no good not praying!...
"For Thy Redemption I hope, oh Lord,
Rachel buried herself deep, deep into the pillows, covered herself up with
the quilt so as not to hear the musicians, and prayed out loud: "For Thy
Redemption I hope, oh Lord." But they came sneaking in through the window,
the sweet songs of Stempeniu's violin, growing softer and fainter and farther
away. And Rachel prayed:
I hope, oh Lord, for Thy Redemption,
Oh Lord, for Thy Redemption I hope."
"For Thy Redemption I hope, oh Lord.
And Stempeniu's violin was almost inaudible in the distance. And the last
sounds were dying out. And Rachel's eyes gradually closed, and her lips
were whispering, almost inaudibly:
I hope, oh Lord, for Thy Redemption,
Oh Lord, for Thy Redemption I hope...."
"For Thy Redemption....
And Rachel fell asleep.
I hope... for Thy Redemption .
Rachel fell asleep and she dreamt that Stempeniu was putting a string
of coral around her neck.... On one side stood her father-in-law in his
prayer shawl and prayer thongs, and Freydel was hitting and smacking him
for all she was worth.... Moyshe-Mendel was dead-drunk, he was straddling
a poker, making crazy faces, and Stempeniu was putting a string of coral
around her neck.... On the other side stood Haia-Etel in her Sabbath best,
decked out like a princess, smiling so joyously, so sweetly, and
lighting many candles.
"What are you doing, Haia-Etel?" asked Rachel. "Why are you lighting
so many candles?"
"How can you ask," Haia-Etel answered, laughing. "It's the Eve of Sabbath,
it's time to light the candles and say the blessing!..." Rachel looked
at the candles burning brightly and shining, and Stempeniu was putting
a string of coral around her neck.... He stood next to her, so close that
she could hear him breathing. He stood there gazing straight into her eyes,
warming her with his stare. Rachel was happy, she laughed and sang, and
Stempeniu was putting a string of coral around her neck.
Suddenly, the candles went out. Haia-Etel and everyone and everything
vanished. It was pitch-black and icy cold, like a cellar, like a grave....
The wind whistled and blasted, and a singing could be heard, a gloomy singing:
a violin was playing, once again a familiar violin. Stempeniu's violin.
Stempeniu himself wasn't there, but his violin could be heard, yet it was
so sad, so gloomy, like the ne'ilah, the last prayer on Yom Kippur.
And there was the sound of weeping and sobbing. It was Haia-Etel crying
for her youth, which had sped by so quickly, like a dream, crying for her
darling Benjamin, who had left her for someone else, forgetting Haia-Etel,
"Oh, Mama!" screamed Rachel and woke up, turned over on her other side,
fell asleep, and dreamt again, all kinds of dreams. She was bewildered
all night long, and she thought she could feel Stempeniu next to her, putting
a string of coral around her neck.... Then Haia-Etel returned with black
candles, crying, mourning, reading prayers out loud: "Almighty Father in
heaven, powerful God, Lord of all lords, King of all kings, who art only
God from eternity to eternity! May our ardent prayers reach Thee and be
granted by Thee. Hear the prayers of the pure souls who stand before Thy
Throne of Glory and plead to Thee on our behalf and for the living on the
earth, who are as full of sins as a pomegranate is full of seeds, and our
Haia-Etel spoke the prayers out loud. She wept, she grieved, she lamented
- and she disappeared.